Markus Bachman presents his rabbit at the Minnesota State Fair in August of 2014. Markus raised rabbits for competition the past three years. | Submitted photo.

Lanes, hares, and automobiles

How does Markus Bachman, born with a life-threatening physical deformity and into a family of athletes, find ways to compete?

By Derek McGaffey | Sports Reporter

The ball flies over the net and Markus gets underneath it. It’s sand volleyball at the lake house on a sunny, hot-and-sticky, late afternoon in Minnesota, just outside Alexandria. His whole family plays. His sister’s friend, too. And the neighborhood kid from down the street. His skinny arms move to pass the ball, but instead it careens off and falls to the ground. This has happened before. Several times today even. It doesn’t happen because of his lack of desire or effort. Markus stomps his feet into the sand, grunting in frustration. His parents encourage him to keep trying; pushing him to continue to give effort. Earlier they wanted him to stay in the shade and sip water, but Markus wanted to play. Relinquishing, his parents put him on the shaded half of the court. After all, Markus tires easily and struggles with muscle coordination.

Markus tried sports. Football and soccer were out of the question. Track? Impossible. Two seasons of baseball. Basketball made him sick. Golf. He couldn’t play competitively. A nine-hole course taxed his respiratory system enough. He eventually found ways to challenge himself that didn’t require a lot of the physical stamina that hindered him.

Markus was born on May 26, 1999, the second child of Mike and Deb Bachman. Their first son.

Mike and Deb met at St. Cloud State University, a Division II school in Central Minnesota. Deb came to the school with a volleyball scholarship; Mike to be on the golf team, eventually leaving to join the men’s volleyball squad.

Their first child, Heather, currently plays volleyball at the University of Jamestown, a private liberal arts college in North Dakota with a student body of 900. Jamestown belongs to the NAIA, which allows small schools to offer athletic scholarships, yet remains the smaller and oft-ignored cousin to the NCAA. Heather got a taste of big time college athletics. The 6’ 3” center committed to play Division I basketball at Kent State University in Ohio, a long way from her home in Bloomington, Minnesota before transferring after two years with the team.

“[Sports are] a part of us, especially for me,” Heather explained.

The Bachman family (from left to right: Heather, Mike, Noah, Deb, and Markus) take a family portrait this past year. They love to be active and spend time together, but Markus’ condition has made it difficult to compete the same way his parents and sisters have. | Submitted photo.

Four-year-old Heather didn’t fully comprehend the situation. The tubes were confusing. She didn’t understand why she had to stay with her grandparents for the month and a half while her parents were with her newborn baby brother in the hospital.

Markus was born with laryngotracheoesophogeal cleft. He has Type IV, the most severe kind. The fleshy wall separating his larynx and pharynx, as well as his trachea and esophagus, failed to fully develop. Where most people have two tubes, Markus only had one.

His stomach only developed to the size of an almond.

And he was deaf.

Markus searched Craigslist for a vehicle from his hospital bed, IVs in place under his white and green 4H shirt. A large purple and gold sticker with Chad Greenway on it covered the back of his PC. His uncle agreed to help him purchase a car, with the caveat that Markus’ dad wouldn’t know. Maybe a Chevy S10 from the early 90’s. After all, “current trucks aren’t trucks.” They’re too clean; too nice. You can’t just throw your crap in them and get them dirty. Or how about the old hatchback station wagons, the ones with the faux-wood paneling? Powder blue. Either way, the vehicle he chooses must be able to haul his rabbits.

Now 16, Markus has grown tall like his parents and sister. Nine years ago, he became the older brother to Noah. He has a mess of dark brown hair on top of his head and hints of an incoming mustache rest on his upper lip. He grew up needing to sign to communicate, but now has the assistance of a hearing aid. The tubes are still there. There are less of them now. Scars are all that remain of the ones that have been removed. The tracheostomy tube through his throat. The gastric tube into his belly. He still has a jejunostomy tube, his J-tube, leading into his intestines. This is how he gets his calories.

He can’t eat through his mouth. Just water, maybe a few sips of cream soda. He carries a small black backpack everywhere. That’s where the bag with his liquid sustenance gets filled, pumped continuously into his gut. A few other changes have happened. Last winter, Markus had a major infection in his right lung. In February, doctors removed the lower two lobes of the lung. His chest is a bowl, sinking deeply into the right side of his thorax. Another scar.

Before purchasing a rabbit, start looking for rabbits. Genetics are everything.

“Good parents equal good babies,” said Markus. After that, success depends on how the rabbits are taken care of. Markus makes sure his rabbits, in their cages in the garage of his suburban home, get enough water and food every day. In the frigid Minnesota winters, he makes sure they don’t freeze. And once the county fair starts sneaking up, he adds sunflower seeds to their food. It makes their fur look better. Markus does this for three-and-a-half months, the time between the acquisition of his precious critters and the county fair.

His first try at raising rabbits, in 2013, Markus’ brown rabbit, Phil, won best in show at the county fair and was selected to go on to the state fair. Last summer, Markus got his black rabbit, Diamond, to state by performing a demonstration under “other large breeds.” He earned a red ribbon; sixth in state. Markus won fourth for showmanship as well.

Markus and his rabbit Diamond volunteer with HopeKids, an organization that provides a community for families with children suffering from cancer or other life-threatening medical conditions. Diamond would go on to win a Red Ribbon in Show at the Minnesota State Fair last August. | Submitted photo.

Markus also competes for the Bloomington Jefferson high school club bowling team.

“You gotta be able to mentally focus,” Markus said.

“It’s hard being left-handed,” — Markus Bachman, Jefferson bowler

The crossroads of the physical and the mental parts of sport intrigues Markus. Back when his sister played at Kent State, he’d watch her games online, calling her afterward to talk about her stats and tell her how she could improve her post game. Now he always learns new things from his teammates and coaches about how to improve his bowling game.

“It’s hard being left-handed,” Markus said. During practices, he has to mirror the movements of his coaches in order to learn technique.

After his lung surgery nearly a year ago, he couldn’t go to the lanes for five months. Finally able to return, Markus went bowling every day. He wanted to show his coaches he could get better.

Bowling season takes place in the fall. Only a few months removed from invasive chest surgery, Markus would spend his sophomore year full-time on the varsity team.

At the conference tournament, the Jefferson squad found themselves down two games to zero against rival Farmington. Markus had been sitting, watching. With a potentially deciding game three coming up, the coach pulled Markus to the side and told him he would be bowling in this game. He would bowl frames one and six. In these matches, five bowlers from each team take turns bowling frames until all 10 are done, and the team with the highest score wins. Strategy matters. Coaches place bowlers like managers place hitters in a batting order in baseball.

Markus bowls during a match with the Bloomington Jefferson club team. Markus joined the team as an eighth-grader as a way to compete and challenge himself. | Submitted photo.

Frame one. Markus needs to calm himself before his first roll. He hits nine pins. Only the seven pin remains, the one in the back left corner. His nemesis. He must roll from the opposite side of the lane to avoid a gutter ball, making the seven the hardest to hit for lefties. The kid in the lane next to him rolls a strike to raise the stakes. Markus calms himself again, needing to hit the pin to pick up the spare. He nails it.

The sixth frame arrives and Markus is up again. Nine pins again, but this time the far-friendlier 10 pin remains. Both teams are going crazy and Markus feels the pressure. This had been a tight, back-and-forth competition. He picked up the spare again.

His team went on to win that game, but lost the match, ending their season. Markus usually doesn’t get challenged mentally like that. The challenge made him glad.

Behind Markus’ bed hangs a T-shirt, signed by Minnesota Twin Joe Mauer, from a game he went to thanks to a doctor who took care of Markus. A football signed by former Viking Ray Edwards sits on the shelf next to it. Sports memorabilia decorates his room. He has a signed Chuck Foreman trading card and a signed picture with former Gopher head football coach Jerry Kill he got from a youth group event. A poster signed by the Timberwolves roster hangs next to the tail feathers from the first turkey Markus shot.

“I don’t belong in the bowling world; I don’t belong in the rabbit world. You do whatever your kid can do.” — Deb Bachman, mother

Markus wakes up and showers. Once he gets back to his room, the dressing around his J-tube needs to be cleaned and changed. After finishing with the tube, Markus grabs the mouthpiece to his nebulizer, which vaporizes his medicine so he can breathe it in. He also grabs his iPad and plays games, or combs through latest issue of Car and Driver, while he gets his medicine. He slips into his gray and green 4H T-shirt.

“I don’t belong in the bowling world; I don’t belong in the rabbit world,” Deb said, who now works as a registered nurse part-time while caring for her two youngest children. However, she said, “You do whatever your kid can do.”